Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Courts in crisis

Click on the title to this post to read a Boston Globe article detailing a speech by Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to the ABA meeting in Boston.

"I shall be blunt: Our state courts are in crisis," Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall told members of the American Bar Association at its midyear meeting at the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center. "A perfect storm of circumstances threatens much of what we know, or think we know, about our American system of justice."
The speech, and the article by Megan Woolhouse goes on to detail a litany of problems in various states. In New Hampshire, they are pausing both civil and criminal jury trials for a month to save the per diem fees to jurors. That state is also postponing filling fifty-nine vacant judicial seats. That's a lot of postponed trials, one way and another! Florida, which relies on real estate sales taxes to pay for its government, has laid off 280 court employees so far, with more lay-offs in the future.

Massachusetts is cutting its courts budget by 7.5 percent, and folks are bracing in case of lay-offs.
Proposed cuts "will basically put us back to 2001 [staffing] levels," he said.

The cuts come just as the state had made acclaimed changes to the system. The overhaul was five years in the making, and came after a blue ribbon commission said the state's court system was failing the public. The system improved efficiency, analyzing staffing and tracking how long it took to resolve cases. A system of evaluating judges, done by lawyers, court employees, and jurors, was put in place.

The overhaul helped shrink the number of unresolved cases from 177,000 in 2006 to 73,500 in 2008. The National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., honored Robert A. Mulligan, who oversaw the reforms as chief justice of administration and management, with the 2008 Distinguished Service Award for his efforts.

Valerie A. Yarashus, president-elect of the Massachusetts Bar Association, said yesterday that the proposed cuts will present the courts with new challenges.

Courts may have to close civil or criminal sessions or consider consolidating. Those changes could reverberate through the system, she said, slowing the courts down again.

"What's particularly frustrating is that the court has worked so hard, particularly in the last five years, to make progress on the backlog," she said. "We want to be really careful . . . not to undo that." (snip)

Marshall did not speak specifically yesterday about Massachusetts' planned cutbacks, but she implored the lawyers in attendance to press political leaders for funding.

"Where do the legal meanings of such elemental concepts as 'birth,' 'death,' and 'family' take shape?" she asked. "Largely in state courts. State courts decide whether the tenant must vacate, whether the criminal defendant was properly charged, who gets custody of the children, who complies with zoning laws, whether the worker is entitled to compensation, or an injured patient to recover from her doctor."

She quoted legal scholar Reginald Heber Smith, calling the denial of justice "the shortcut to anarchy."

"These are words that resonate deeply with me," she said.
Brava, Justice Marshall!

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